How do you solve a problem like Italy?

There are not many things that can both bring a family together whilst simultaneously have them at each other’s throats. For my family, this is the RBS Six Nations. Most families have one or two of the home nations within them, creating that little bit of tension and friendly rivalry between them. By some weird coincidence my family covers four. This means that once a year in our WhatsApp groups, not a weekend goes by in February and early March without some smugness, gloating or bitterness being hurled between phones.

You see, I am English. Born and bred in North East England.

My mother is Welsh, from Neyland. As you can probably guess we have a fair amount of banter between the pair of us, more so in that this is the main sport that my mother follows. So once a year, unfortunately for me more often than not, she is able to claim the majority of the bragging rights in the family.

My step-father is Scottish, from the outskirts of Glasgow. He has come to live with this, he gains the most sympathy in the family and is probably everyone else’s second team (my father’s side of the family is also Scottish), on the rare occasions he is able to celebrate over one of us, this is often looked at as justified and a feeling genuine happiness for him, with a hint of disbelief.

My partner, for all intents and purposes, is Irish. Born in England, but she was the first one from her family to be born outside Northern Ireland, watching England vs Ireland and sliding sarcastic comments between her father and myself over a beer is genuinely an enjoyable time. She also enjoys poking fun (unsuccessfully the last few years might I add).

The Six Nations

The Six Nations is the oldest Rugby competition in the World. It has evolved and been adapted since it’s inception as the Home Nations in 1883, with France being invited in 1910 and then again in 1940 (they were excluded for breaking domestic rules) and then finally Italy being invited to join in 2000. This was a massive boost for Italian Rugby at the time, but unfortunately has since fizzled out. The Six Nations essentially became split in two. England, Ireland, Wales and France would fight for the Championship, Scotland and Italy would duke it out to avoid the Wooden Spoon. In recent years however it has more been a case of either England, Ireland and Wales will win, France and Scotland fight for fourth, and Italy will be last. They are now the whipping boys of the Six Nations. 

I have followed this competition for as long as I can remember.My family is also to blame for this with us getting more competitive the older we have all gotten. There is a problem though. That problem is currently sitting at the bottom of the table, the same way that  it has for the last four years, and that problem is Italy.

The Italian Dilemma

Italy are currently not good enough to be in the Six Nations. They have lost 22 straight games. Their last win was in the 2015 tournament, a 22-15 victory over Scotland. In fact during their tenure in the Six Nations they have ‘won’ the Wooden Spoon fourteen out of the nineteen times they have appeared, and look set to make that fifteen out of twenty this year.  The last time they won a game Brexit wasn’t a thing and Obama was still in the White House. This sort of non-competitiveness is not good for any competition.

This situation is exactly what made UEFA change to their new, if not slightly awkward, Nations League. Putting teams up against other teams of a similar ability, meaning the there was suddenly an uplift in competition and it gave the nations involved another edge, not just getting hammered every time there was a game of Gibraltar vs France for example, it serves no purpose for either team to play each other, and this is what is at risk of happening in the Six Nations with Italy. 

In 2016 after another whitewash Italy, in order to attempt to stem this haemorrhaging, appointed Ireland Veteran and Harlequin Director of Rugby Conor O’Shea. However despite recording their first ever win over one of the Southern Hemisphere “Big Three” he oversaw three whitewashed Six Nations with their only table point being scored a ‘losers bonus point’.

The job was too big for O’Shea. Italy needed a revolution, a change to their game to bring them back to the top tier they once were. O’Shea was not the man for this. He failed to address either the defensive or offensive side of the game, seeing them beat only Georgia, Namibia and Canada in a two year span. Following this terrible run, O’Shea left in November 2019.

Italy are now merely a risk to players in injury or fatigue before they play one of the teams that is actually competitive. They face the most rotated teams and yet still can’t win. This is the reason why something needs to happen to the competition to make sure it maintains it’s reputation as the most competitive and intense annual rugby competition. To me there are three options to resolve this issue:

Option 1

Return to the 5 Nations

Kick Italy Out. Returning to the pre-2000 format of the tournament would get rid of the guaranteed win the teams currently face bringing back the level of the competition. Now this would be catastrophic for Italian Rugby as a whole, the interest and investment would be crippled, but it will also allow Italian Rugby an attempt to rebuild, moving into the European Nations Cup. Unfortunately the biggest sufferers of this would be Scotland who would most likely end up being the wooden spoon regulars. This option would most likely make the competition worse.

Option 2

Replaced with Georgia

Now this is where I may get controversial. Replacing Italy with Georgia. This is a risk. There is no guarantee it would work or even increase competitiveness. Georgia are currently having a surge in their national rugby ability. Becoming very competitive in World Cups and developing a reputation as a Rugby Nation. Possibly now deserving the chance to step up to the top tier. Georgia have won the European Nations Cup (the competition below the Six Nations) for the 6th consecutive time, having won 10 of the last 12 years, finishing no lower than 2nd. They had an unbeaten tour of the Pacific Islands in 2016, a very impressive feat. The Lelos are practically banging on the door of the Six Nations, at a time when a team within looks spent and lost.

This option would backfire massively if Georgia performed as badly as Italy. We would be simply replacing one problem with another. Which could be just as likely.

Option 3

Adding Georgia

Creating the Seven Nations. For me, this would be the best option. The Six Nations has worked very well in its current format, and is more popular than ever over the last twenty years, however this risks becoming stale when the lower half of the table becomes noncompetitive. Before,Scotland and Italy would play for pride, this is no longer the case, as Italy will inevitably lose.

Bringing in Georgia would generate extra competition for Italy but also for Scotland. It gives the lower half of the Six Nations the competitive edge it needs. Georgia will be pulled up after their impressive form. Having an extra team brings a new dynamic, a new layer to the competition. A new country to play brings excitement and the unknown. However it does also bring its cons. Another game, the unpredictability, it could end up nothing more than a failed experiment. I believe the pros however, outweigh the cons.

Italy should stay, but Georgia deserve a chance

Like any international competition there are both risks and rewards when big changes happen. Italy has become a limpet to the Six Nations. They need to either improve the competitiveness of the league itself, or cut loose those that can’t keep up. Georgia can be the answer that is needed. A team to generate a new dynamic, and bring fresh blood to a currently weakened competition, but don’t expel the Italians. The Azzuri may come back to prove me wrong. The Six Nations is better for having more teams in it. It just needs to those that deserve and have earned their place.

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